LA CROSSE, Wis. – Searchers combing the Mississippi River this month pulled out the body of basketball player Luke Homan — the eighth college-age man in nine years to disappear from a city tavern and turn up dead in a river.
La Crosse officials have debated for years how to keep drunken students safe, but some say there may be no answer for a town with three colleges, three rivers and $3 pitchers of beer.
"I'm not sure anything we do can prevent a future tragedy," Mayor Mark Johnsrud said.
Some officials want to rein in the binge drinking culture. Others have proposed fencing off the scenic waterfront.
But solutions have so far eluded this community where drownings and drinking have claimed lives for years. The city's first recorded alcohol-related drowning was in 1867, according to the mayor.
The more recent string of deaths began in July 1997, when searchers pulled 19-year-old Richard Hlavaty's body from the Mississippi River near a park. College wrestler Jared Dion became the seventh drowning in 2004 when his body turned up in the same park.
The community is saturated with thousands of students attending the University of Wisconsin's Lacrosse campus, as well as Viterbo University and Western Wisconsin Technical College. Downtown bars cater to young drinkers, offering booze at dirt-cheap prices.
The Vibe, where Homan was last seen alive, offers an all-you-can-drink special for $5. Shots are just $1. A sign in the bar's window proclaims: "You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on."
Down the street, Brothers offers bottles of beer for a buck on Wednesdays. The Helm boasts 50-cent schnapps and $3 pitchers from midnight to 1:30 a.m.
The community has a long tradition of drinking. Thousands of people converge on La Crosse every fall for its Oktoberfest, a dayslong party with abundant beer. And on days when the wind blows just right, the smells of City Brewery waft through downtown.
"The problem is the culture is already up on a pedestal in this town," said University of Wisconsin senior Cathy Long.
But the waterfront can be deadly. Investigators believe Dion fell off a levee that doubles as a pedestrian walkway and a dock for visiting paddlewheel boats. The levee had no railing, allowing him to tumble 10 feet into the frigid Mississippi.
His death brought to a head years of fears that a serial killer was stalking drunks. Police held a town meeting to reassure people, explaining that none of the victims was attacked. Investigators said the students had been drinking heavily and noted that Riverside Park is just two blocks from downtown bars.
A task force appointed to investigate the drownings made 19 recommendations ranging from building gates to the levee to creating alternative forms of entertainment and limiting Oktoberfest to one weekend.
But only a handful of those suggestions were adopted, including police patrols of house parties and an extra police shift to patrol bars.
Over time, the focus on drownings faded, Alderwoman Andrea Richmond said.
"Everybody kind of let it drop," she said. "We've done nothing."
Searchers found Homan's body Oct. 2, not far from where Dion was discovered. Preliminary toxicology reports put Homan's blood-alcohol level at 0.32 percent, four times the legal limit in Wisconsin.
Joe Werner, 22, a senior on the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse basketball team, compared Homan's death to losing a brother.
"They need to do something more down by the river," Werner said. "If enough would have been done, it wouldn't have happened again."
Students have taken it upon themselves to patrol the park since Homan's death, but residents are calling for some kind of barrier.
But the mayor does not want fences or gates to mar Riverside Park's natural beauty or send a message that La Crosse is a "playground" for binge drinkers.
His solution: Spend $60,000 on motion-activated lights in the park to startle drunks and alert them they are close to the water. The City Council is set to consider the lights in November.
Meanwhile, the mayor said, community groups need to keep warning students about the dangers of binge drinking, he said.
"It's a behavior issue," he said. "People are going to do what they want to do."
Mary Torstveit, assistant director of prevention services at the University of Wisconsin, said students living off-campus are largely on their own.
Drinking "just seems to be such a standard part of Wisconsin culture and La Crosse culture. We'll always be fighting that," she said. "At some point, we have to start working on personal responsibility. That's probably the biggest thing. You can't have somebody looking out for you your whole life."